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Staff describe chaotic scenes at Swedish hospital during strike. Swedish says everything is fine

caption: Nurses and caregivers strike on Tuesday, January 28, 2019, outside of the Swedish Ballard Campus along NW Market Street in Seattle.
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Nurses and caregivers strike on Tuesday, January 28, 2019, outside of the Swedish Ballard Campus along NW Market Street in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

The mood was tense on C Floor at Swedish Medical Center on Monday. With a strike imminent, a supervisor told respiratory therapists that he would check ventilators ... to make sure no one had sabotaged them to make Swedish look bad.

The techs, according to several in the room, were aghast at the suggestion that they would harm patients.

“I told him, ‘What you’re saying is really offensive. There’s nobody in this room here that would do that,” said respiratory therapist Jill Kline.

Intensive care unit nurses felt similarly the next morning, day 1 of the strike, when security escorted them down an elevator and out the back basement door at the end of their night shift.

“It was a very aggressive and borderline hostile treatment,” said staff nurse Sarah Hakala. “We felt like we were being punished or treated like criminals, like we had done something wrong.”

The same day, doula Kate Dewey found herself holding a needle ... without gloves on ... because a temporary nurse instructed her to.

These are scenes that nurses and others at Swedish Hospital said played out this week as a nursing and staff strike was ongoing. The three-day strike ended Friday morning. KUOW spoke with seven people who gave accounts of what they saw as Swedish employees walked out Tuesday morning, and temporary employees transitioned in.

For more than nine months, Swedish management and members of the SEIU Healthcare 1199NW union have been in bargaining talks over a fair contract.

In a statement to KUOW, Swedish said the hospital had a successful week and that "no major safety events occurred during the strike."

In a second statement to KUOW, the hospital said, "It was not our intention to have our caregivers feel we don’t trust them. From security guards to safety checks, all measures were implemented to ensure our patients and caregivers, along with the temporary workers, were safe during the transition."

Eric Anderson, a respiratory therapist, supported his coworker Jill Kline’s account, however.

According to Anderson, the supervisor said, “When you guys walk out of here tomorrow, I have to go around to every unit and check every ventilator to make sure you haven’t messed up the setting or changed the settings before you walked out.’”

Anderson said he felt targeted because he is one the communications team members for the SEIU.

“His voice was shaking,” Anderson said of the supervisor. “He was yelling. His face was red ... he seemed angry that I was saying anything.”

Nurse Sarah Hakala was the charge nurse on the 6 East surgical intensive care unit on Monday night through Tuesday morning.

Nurses were told by one of the physicians that they were required to gather into a room, and give a report to a person Hakala said she had never seen before.

Names were read off a list, nurses were required to say present and show their identification.

“(We were) told to write down a written report, those were then collected by the physician who I assume delivered them to the oncoming staff,” Hakala said. “I never had an opportunity to meet any of the oncoming staff.”

These unknown nurses were hired by Providence Swedish to replace workers as they held their three-day strike. Employees said these nurses flew in from all over the country. One even flew in from Africa, a doula was told.

In an email, Swedish spokesperson Tiffany Moss wrote:

"For the safety of the replacement workers, it is best practice and a request by the replacement agencies that the two groups not interface, so the replacement workers felt safe and protected from any type of intimidation. To ensure patient safety, full handoffs were facilitated by striking caregivers with their clinical managers and physicians so that the care was safe and seamless. It’s our practice to be overly cautious and safe to ensure every patient was safe during the handoff period."

Hakala and others expressed concern over not having face-to-face time with these nurses, who were taking over their charges.

Typically, nurses at Swedish will have a half hour of overlap in their shifts, to exchange information.

“(Nurses) at the end of their shift are so fatigued, it’s so critical to ask questions and clarify them so there’s a clear status of the patient and plan moving forward,” Hakala said.

She said her group of nurses were then escorted out in a “very aggressive manner” by security past the unit. Hakala said based on what she could see, there were no intensive care nurses on the floor, but there were physicians.

“Many of us were scared for them because we know how serious it is,” Hakala said. “It’s really, really scary to watch as our patients laid there with no nursing care at all.”

She said employees were told there would be one nurse on the floor as the transition happened. Nurses are needed to access the medication system. They use a fingerprint or password to access life-saving medications and drips.

In the days leading up to the protest at Swedish, chain link fences were put in front of access points to the hospital and lines were painted on public sidewalks, said Marcus Engley, staff nurse at the First Hill campus.

“The impression that we got is that they expected us to storm the hospital and needed to defend against us,” Engley said.

What was described as “tactical guards, suited with body cameras” were stationed across the campus to protect “caregivers and the community,” according to an email sent out by Swedish administration.

“There’s no reason for all this expectation for violence ... these are people who break their backs to make other people heal,” Engley said. “All of their actions pre-strike were sort of galvanizing in terms of making it clear that they don’t have respect for our ability to control ourselves.”

Doula Kate Dewey was called to attend a labor at Swedish Tuesday morning. Following the birth, she took to social media, calling what she saw a “shit show.”

The patient was admitted right as nurses were walking out. When the patient arrived there was already a replacement agency nurse already there.

“It was very clear from the beginning this nurse had no idea what was normal for a Swedish nurse to do when someone was in labor,” Dewey said.

Dewey was asked to hold a needle ungloved by the nurse. This could be dangerous for a patient but also falls outside of the scope of a doula, who is there as a mostly moral support for mothers in labor.

“It’s normal to let patients drink water when they need to and this nurse wouldn’t allow the patient to do anything unless she checked with (obstetrician). You can’t deny patients water when laboring,” Dewey said.

There was another mother who at one point got lost on the First Hill campus, according to a hospital staffer who spoke anonymously. The staffer would not give their name because they feared retaliation.

The expectant mother was trying to reach the high risk team that night, and had planned on delivering her baby at Swedish's Ballard location.

The closure of Swedish Ballard's labor and delivery unit prompted the delivery relocation and the mother's confusion that night. The baby was in trouble by the time the mother reached staff, the anonymous source said. They feared a much worse outcome, had the mother gone any longer before reaching nurses.

Dewey offered words of advice for expectant mothers planning to deliver their babies this week.

If you’re planning on having a baby at Swedish, “consider going somewhere else.”

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